Part 1: Overview of Ethics, Definitions of Ethics, Meta-Ethics, Normative Ethics, Virtue Ethics, Stoicism and Contemporary Virtue Ethics

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Overview of Ethics

Ethics or moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that involves systematising, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct (Fieser, n.d.).

The field of ethics, along with aesthetics, concern matters of value, and thus comprise the branch of philosophy called axiology.

Ethics seeks to resolve questions of human morality by defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime.

As a field of intellectual inquiry, moral philosophy also is related to the fields of moral psychology, descriptive ethics, and value theory.

Three major areas of study within ethics recognized today are: (Feiser, n.d.)

  • Meta-ethics – concerning the theoretical meaning and reference of moral propositions, and how their truth values (if any) can be determined
  • Normative ethics – concerning the practical means of determining a moral course of action
  • Applied ethics – concerning what a person is obligated (or permitted) to do in a specific situation or a particular domain of action (Feiser, n.d.)

Definitions of Ethics

The English word “ethics” is derived from the Ancient Greek word ēthikós, meaning “relating to one’s character”, which itself comes from the root word êthos, meaning “character, moral nature” (Liddell, 2010).

This was borrowed into Latin as ethica and then into French as éthique, from which it was borrowed into English.

Rushworth Kidder states that “standard definitions of ethics have typically included such phrases as ‘the science of the ideal human character’ or ‘the science of moral duty'” (Kidder and Rushworth, 2003, p.63).

Richard William Paul and Linda Elder define ethics as “a set of concepts and principles that guide us in determining what behaviour helps or harms sentient creatures” (Paul and Elder, 2006).

The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy states that the word “ethics” is “commonly used interchangeably with ‘morality’ … and sometimes it is used more narrowly to mean the moral principles of a particular tradition, group or individual” (Audi, 1995).

Paul and Elder state that most people confuse ethics with behaving in accordance with social conventions, religious beliefs and the law and don’t treat ethics as a stand-alone concept (Paul and Elder, 2006).

The word ethics in English refers to several things (Merriam Webster, n.d.).

It can refer to philosophical ethics or moral philosophy—a project that attempts to use reason to answer various kinds of ethical questions.

As the English philosopher Bernard Williams writes, attempting to explain moral philosophy: “What makes an inquiry a philosophical one is reflective generality and a style of argument that claims to be rationally persuasive” (Williams, 1985, p.2).

Williams describes the content of this area of inquiry as addressing the very broad question, “how one should live” (Williams, 1985, p.1).

Ethics can also refer to a common human ability to think about ethical problems that is not particular to philosophy.

As bioethicist Larry Churchill has written: “Ethics, understood as the capacity to think critically about moral values and direct our actions in terms of such values, is a generic human capacity” (Churchill, 1999).

Ethics can also be used to describe a particular person’s own idiosyncratic principles or habits (Tanguay, 2014). For example: “Joe has strange ethics.”


Meta-ethics is the branch of philosophical ethics that asks how we understand, know about, and what we mean when we talk about what is right and what is wrong (BBC, 2013).

An ethical question pertaining to a particular practical situation—such as, “Should I eat this particular piece of chocolate cake?”—cannot be a meta-ethical question (rather, this is an applied ethical question).

A meta-ethical question is abstract and relates to a wide range of more specific practical questions.

For example, “Is it ever possible to have secure knowledge of what is right and wrong?” is a meta-ethical question.

Meta-ethics has always accompanied philosophical ethics.

For example, Aristotle implies that less precise knowledge is possible in ethics than in other spheres of inquiry, and he regards ethical knowledge as depending upon habit and acculturation in a way that makes it distinctive from other kinds of knowledge.

Meta-ethics is also important in G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica from 1903 – In it he first wrote about what he called the naturalistic fallacy.

Moore was seen to reject naturalism in ethics, in his Open Question Argument.

This made thinkers look again at second order questions about ethics. Earlier, the Scottish philosopher David Hume had put forward a similar view on the difference between facts and values.

Studies of how we know in ethics divide into cognitivism and non-cognitivism; this is quite akin to the thing called descriptive and non-descriptive.

  • Non-cognitivism is the view that when we judge something as morally right or wrong, this is neither true nor false.

We may, for example, be only expressing our emotional feelings about these things (Marturano, n.d.).

  • Cognitivism can then be seen as the claim that when we talk about right and wrong, we are talking about matters of fact.

The ontology of ethics is about value bearing things or properties, i.e. the kind of things or stuff referred to by ethical propositions.

Non-descriptivists and non-cognitivists believe that ethics does not need a specific ontology since ethical propositions do not refer.

This is known as an anti-realist position.

Realists, on the other hand, must explain what kind of entities, properties or states are relevant for ethics, how they have value, and why they guide and motivate our actions (Miller, 2009).

Normative Ethics

Normative ethics is the study of ethical action, and a branch of ethics that investigates the set of questions that arise when considering how one ought to act, morally speaking.

Normative ethics is distinct from meta-ethics because normative ethics examines standards for the rightness and wrongness of actions, while meta-ethics studies the meaning of moral language and the metaphysics of moral facts (BBC, 2013).

Normative ethics is also distinct from descriptive ethics, as the latter is an empirical investigation of people’s moral beliefs.

To put it another way, descriptive ethics would be concerned with determining what proportion of people believe that killing is always wrong, while normative ethics is concerned with whether it is correct to hold such a belief.

Hence, normative ethics is sometimes called prescriptive, rather than descriptive.

However, on certain versions of the meta-ethical view called moral realism, moral facts are both descriptive and prescriptive at the same time (Cavalier, 2013).

Traditionally, normative ethics (also known as moral theory) was the study of what makes actions right and wrong.

These theories offered an overarching moral principle one could appeal to in resolving difficult moral decisions.

At the turn of the 20th century, moral theories became more complex and were no longer concerned solely with rightness and wrongness, but were interested in many different kinds of moral status.

During the middle of the century, the study of normative ethics declined as meta-ethics grew in prominence, and this focus on meta-ethics was in part caused by an intense linguistic focus in analytic philosophy and by the popularity of logical positivism.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics describes the character of a moral agent as a driving force for ethical behaviour, and it is used to describe the ethics of Socrates, Aristotle, and other early Greek philosophers.

Socrates (469–399 BC) was one of the first Greek philosophers to encourage both scholars and the common citizen to turn their attention from the outside world to the condition of humankind – in this view, knowledge bearing on human life was placed highest, while all other knowledge was secondary.

Self-knowledge was considered necessary for success and inherently an essential good.

A self-aware person will act completely within his capabilities to his pinnacle, while an ignorant person will flounder and encounter difficulty.

To Socrates, a person must become aware of every fact (and its context) relevant to his existence, if he wishes to attain self-knowledge.

He posited that people will naturally do what is good if they know what is right.

Evil or bad actions are the results of ignorance.

If a criminal was truly aware of the intellectual and spiritual consequences of his or her actions, he or she would neither commit nor even consider committing those actions.

Any person who knows what is truly right will automatically do it, according to Socrates.

While he correlated knowledge with virtue, he similarly equated virtue with joy.

“The truly wise man will know what is right, do what is good, and therefore be happy” (Sahakian and Sahakian, 1966 p.32–33).

Aristotle (384–323 BC) posited an ethical system that may be termed “virtuous”.

In Aristotle’s view, when a person acts in accordance with virtue this person will do good and be content.

Unhappiness and frustration are caused by doing wrong, leading to failed goals and a poor life, therefore, it is imperative for people to act in accordance with virtue, which is only attainable by the practice of the virtues in order to be content and complete.

Happiness was held to be the ultimate goal, and all other things, such as civic life or wealth, were only made worthwhile and of benefit when employed in the practice of the virtues.

The practice of the virtues is the surest path to happiness.

Aristotle asserted that the soul of man had three natures:

  • Body (physical/metabolism)
  • Animal (emotional/appetite)
  • Rational (mental/conceptual)
  • Physical nature can be assuaged through exercise and care
  • Emotional nature through indulgence of instinct and urges
  • Mental nature through human reason and developed potential

Rational development was considered the most important, as essential to philosophical self-awareness and as uniquely human.

Moderation was encouraged, with the extremes seen as degraded and immoral.

For example, courage is the moderate virtue between the extremes of cowardice and recklessness.

Man should not simply live, but live well with conduct governed by virtue. This is regarded as difficult, as virtue denotes doing the right thing, in the right way, at the right time, for the right reason.


The Stoic philosopher Epictetus posited that the greatest good was contentment and serenity.

Peace of mind, or apatheia, was of the highest value; self-mastery over one’s desires and emotions leads to spiritual peace.

The “unconquerable will” is central to this philosophy.

The individual’s will should be independent and inviolate.

Allowing a person to disturb the mental equilibrium is, in essence, offering yourself in slavery.

If a person is free to anger you at will, you have no control over your internal world, and therefore no freedom.

Freedom from material attachments is also necessary.

If a thing breaks, the person should not be upset, but realise it was a thing that could break.

Similarly, if someone should die, those close to them should hold to their serenity because the loved one was made of flesh and blood destined to death.

Stoic philosophy says to accept things that cannot be changed, resigning oneself to the existence and enduring in a rational fashion.

Death is not feared – people do not “lose” their life, but instead “return”, for they are returning to God (who initially gave what the person is as a person).

Epictetus said difficult problems in life should not be avoided, but rather embraced.

They are spiritual exercises needed for the health of the spirit, just as physical exercise is required for the health of the body.

He also stated that sex and sexual desire are to be avoided as the greatest threat to the integrity and equilibrium of a man’s mind.

Abstinence is highly desirable. Epictetus said remaining abstinent in the face of temptation was a victory for which a man could be proud (Sahakian and Sahakian, 1966).

Contemporary Virtue Ethics

Modern virtue ethics was popularised during the late 20th century in large part as a response to G.E.M. Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy”.

Anscombe argues that consequentialist and deontological ethics are only feasible as universal theories if the two schools ground themselves in divine law.

As a deeply devoted Christian herself, Anscombe proposed that either those who do not give ethical credence to notions of divine law take up virtue ethics, which does not necessitate universal laws as agents themselves are investigated for virtue or vice and held up to “universal standards”, or that those who wish to be utilitarian or consequentialist ground their theories in religious conviction (de Vries and Kim, 2011).

Alasdair MacIntyre, who wrote the book After Virtue, was a key contributor and proponent of modern virtue ethics, although some claim that MacIntyre supports a relativistic account of virtue based on cultural norms, not objective standards (de Vries and Kim, 2011).

Martha Nussbaum, a contemporary virtue ethicist, objects to MacIntyre’s relativism, among that of others, and responds to relativist objections to form an objective account in her work “Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach” (Nussbaum, 1987).

However, Nussbaum’s accusation of relativism appears to be a misreading.

In Whose Justice, Whose Rationality?, MacIntyre’s ambition of taking a rational path beyond relativism was quite clear when he stated “rival claims made by different traditions […] are to be evaluated […] without relativism” (MacIntyre, 1988, p. 354) because indeed “rational debate between and rational choice among rival traditions is possible” (MacIntyre, 1988, p. 352).

Complete Conduct Principles for the 21st Century blended the Eastern virtue ethics and the Western virtue ethics, with some modifications to suit the 21st Century, and formed a part of contemporary virtue ethics (Newton, 2000).

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